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Touch Grass

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High school students in Alabama share some favorite slang terms. If someone tells you to touch grass, they’re telling you to get a reality check — but the last thing you’d actually want to touch is dog water! Also, the history of the word hangover, and the many names, in several languages, for the effects of drinking too much alcohol. Plus, Do you smell what I’m stepping in? If you do, that means you’re following what someone is saying to you. And Erin vs. Aaron, bloodynoun, cute little whiffet, a calming puzzle, leaning toward sawyers, the skinny, custard wind, swamp-gahoon, hicklesnifter, gillygaloo, whiffle-poofle, and guyascutus.

This episode first aired October 15, 2022.

If I Tell You A Hen Dips Snuff

 We were invited by Huntsville, Alabama, public radio station WLRH to do a live appearance at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. During the Q&A, a listener shared a version of the phrase If I tell you a hen dips snuff, you can look under its wing (and you’ll find a whole can). It means “What I’m saying is true, and if you don’t believe it, you can check it out for yourself.” This phrase, and versions of it, have long been a part of Black American English. In a letter recorded in Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971 (Bookshop|Amazon), jazz great Louis Armstrong once wrote to his biographer: If I tell you that a Hen Dip Snuff, you just look under her wings and you’ll find a whole can full. Meaning I don’t waste words either. Interested in booking us for a live appearance in your hometown? Just look under our link!

Does the Drinking “Hangover” Come from Sleeping Over a Rope?

 Noah in Charleston, South Carolina, wonders about the origin of hangover, “the unpleasant physical results of drinking too much alcohol.” Does it come from the old penny hang, also called a hangover, a place where people without a place to sleep could literally spend a night hanging over a rope, sometimes sleeping off the effects of too much booze? George Orwell described these types of places in Down and Out in Paris and London (Bookshop|Amazon). But the term hangover was used long before that to denote various kinds of aftereffects, such as a political hangover. Over time, hangover came to specify the result of too many drinks. The German word Katzenjammer, literally “a squall of cats,” also means “hangover.” Danish terms for this affliction translate as “a blacksmith in the forehead” or “a carpenter in the forehead.” In French, someone who is hung over is said to have “a wooden mouth,” or they are suffering from mal aux cheveux, “a hair ache.” The term veisalgia, sometimes used by doctors, comes from Norwegian kveis, meaning “uneasiness following debauchery,” and the Greek algia, or “pain,” a relative of the word for something that removes pain, analgesic.

A Croaking Bloodynoun

 A bloodynoun or a bloodnoun isn’t a lesser-known part of speech. In the Southeastern United States, a bloodnoun is “a bullfrog.” This term is likely echoic, related to a similar term in the Gullah language.


 In parts of the United States where Pennsylvania German is spoken, the term schussel means “to wiggle” or “to fidget.” The German word schusselig means “hasty,” “clumsy,” or “sloppy,” and Schussel refers to a “scatterbrained person” or “dolt.”

A Child Hears About Locoweed

 Jean in Greenville, South Carolina, shares a funny story about learning the term locoweed, which she learned from watching lots of Westerns as a child.

Keep Calm and Word Game On

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is based on those posters that read Keep Calm and Carry on. For example, what advice would you give to someone sailing down the longest river in South America?

Why Certain People Pronounce “Aaron” and “Erin” Differently and Others Pronounce Them the Same

 Erin grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, but when she moved to New York City, she found that people often told her she pronounces Erin as if it’s spelled like the masculine name Aaron. Has Erin been pronouncing her own name wrong all these years? In parts of the United States, particularly the Western and Central states the pronunciation of the words marry and merry sound the same, but in the Northeast and Montreal they sound slightly different. Something similar to this merry-marry merger also happens with the names Erin and Aaron. In other words, it’s a dialectal difference. Speaking of pronouncing the name Aaron, check out Key & Peele’s “Substitute Teacher” sketch.

Racing Rebus Redux

 Amanda in Melbourne, Australia, provides a much better way to read the rebus about racehorses that we shared in a previous episode.

A Cute Little Whiffet

 Sherry in Williamsburg, Virginia, has long used the phrase cute little whiffet, a fond way of referring to something small and adorable, such as a chubby baby. Since the late 1700s, the term whiffet has been used to denote “a small, insignificant person,” and may be related to the term whiff, meaning “a slight smell” or “small amount of something.” Walt Whitman wrote admiringly of trees, comparing their resolute sturdiness and endurance in all kinds of weather to that of this gusty-temper’d little whiffet, man, that runs indoors at a mite of rain or snow.

Leaning Toward Fishers or Leaning Toward Sawyers

 If you’re hanging a framed picture but it’s askew, you might say it’s leaning toward Fishers or leaning toward Sawyers or leaning toward Jesus. All of these phrases probably come from the logging industry. If workers are using a crosscut saw to fell a tree, but the tree is leaning in the wrong direction, it’s said to be leaning toward the sawyers. Outside the parlance of loggers, the word sawyers was likely misunderstood as a last name, and eventually replaced with other proper nouns, as in leaning towards Jones, leaning towards Coopers, leaning towards Perkins, and leaning towards Schoonovers, and others. Incidentally, the expression in a bind also comes from logging. If a tree doesn’t fall away in the direction the logger intends, it will trap or bind the saw blade, making it difficult to continue. A logger might say it was caught in the bind or caught in the box, and this idea is now used in a more figurative sense to indicate “being stuck” or “out of options.”

A High School Slang Field Report from Huntsville

 We were invited to Lee High School in Huntsville, Alabama, to talk with students about slang. During our previous visit in 2018, we learned the apparently hyperlocal slang term forf meaning “to flake out” or “someone who fails to follow through.” This time students reported that this word is still sometimes used. There’s also touch grass, meaning to “get a reality check” or “push away from the computer screen and experience the offline world.” Dog water denotes “something undesirable.” They’re also using giving in a novel way: Someone who resembles a Hobbit might be said to be giving Bilbo Baggins.

Getting the Skinny on “the Skinny” Meaning “the Details”

 Brian in Dallas, Texas, wants to know the origin of the skinny as in “all the details and information.” This expression may go all the way back to slang used at the U.S. Naval Academy in the early 1900s.

Serve Me Up a Custard Wind

 A custard wind may sound delicious, but it’s actually a type of cold easterly wind along the northeast coast of England. This expression is likely an adaptation of coastward wind.

Guyascutus, a Legendary Cryptid

 Larry from Cameron, South Carolina, says a friend who grew up on Johns Island, South Carolina, was warned since she was a small child to stay out of the woods, lest she be seized by a scary beast known as the guyascutus. At least as far back as the 19th century, parents would invoke the wrath of this mythical monster to keep children in line. In those days, many other imaginary creatures supposedly roamed the American landscape, sporting such fanciful names as the swamp-gahoon, the hicklesnifter, the gillygaloo, and the whiffle-poofle.

Are You Smelling What I’m Stepping In?

 Mickey from Austin, Texas, is curious about a phrase his mother uses: Are you smelling what I’m stepping in? meaning “Do you understand what I’m saying?” It likely derives from Black English Do you smell me? and Do you feel me? and is probably related as well to You smell what I’m cooking? a variant of which, Do you smell what the Rock is cooking? became a catchphrase for professional wrestler Duane “The Rock” Johnson.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971 by Max Jones and John Chilton (Bookshop|Amazon)
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Heavy Wes InterludeRugged NuggetsOdds & EndsColemine Records
Rugged WalkRugged NuggetsOdds & EndsColemine Records
Walking In The RainRugged NuggetsOdds & EndsColemine Records
ZombieFela KutiZombiePolydor
Songs For LemonsRugged NuggetsOdds & EndsColemine Records
Sorrow Tears and BloodFela KutiSorrow Tears and BloodPolyGram
Take Me With YouRugged NuggetsOdds & EndsColemine Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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